A group of five baristas who operate the espresso machines at Slack’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco learned on March 6 that they were losing their contracted positions just prior to a decision by the company to move to remote operations to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Scared about losing their source of income and healthcare during a precarious moment for service industry workers, the baristas drafted an open letter to Steward Butterfield, Slack’s CEO, calling out the company for leaving them “out of jobs in the middle of a global pandemic” and demanding three months of severance pay and healthcare.
On Thursday, the baristas claim that Slack caught wind of their intention to criticize the company publicly—and in what they claim to be an organizing victory, they learned that their severance would be extended to 90 days.
“I’m ecstatic, and I can’t believe this is happening. I’m super grateful that organizing works and that they gave us our demands,” Cara Berman, one of the baristas at Slack told Motherboard. “This is my first organizing victory.”
“We deeply value the contributions of our contractors, and we want to ensure that they are treated well,” a spokesperson for Slack told Motherboard. “While Slack has moved to remote operations as of March 7, we are committed to continue paying all contractors as per normal schedules. We recognize this is a difficult time, and want to protect their health without risking their livelihood."
The Slack spokesperson said that the decision to terminate the baristas’ contracts was “in no way related to COVID-19,” noting that the decision had been made on February 27 and “remote work contingency plans were not scheduled or implemented until March 7.”
The announcement from Slack arrives during a period of increased precarity for blue collar workers across the tech industry, from contractors to temps to gig workers—many of whom do not receive basic benefits like health care and paid sick days. While many white collar workers will have the option of working from home during the worst of the outbreak, service industry and gig workers have found themselves either vulnerable to virus exposure or losing their jobs when their services are no longer needed.
“I think as baristas for Slack we were in a susceptible position with regards to the security of our job in this office closure,” said Nicolette Lounibos, another contracted barista at Slack. “Right now, because of Coronavirus the service industry isn’t hiring service workers.”
The baristas at Slack, who were contracted through Premier Talent Partners, earned $28 an hour and received healthcare benefits—making the position one of the best available to baristas in the San Francisco, the workers say.
In the days following the announcement to end their contract, employees at Slack raised more than $15,000 on a GoFundMe page for the terminated workers.